What do you mean, you’ve never judged a book by its cover?

The act of reading books in public is a performative art – we like to convey a certain image with what we’re reading. How we interpret people’s character by what we see them reading is another concern entirely.

By Serena Ypelaar

Let’s not lie to ourselves: we’ve all judged books by their covers.

Something about the imagery that first greets us is so immediately evocative that we’re instantly gripped by emotion.

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So many covers to judge. Photo: Serena Ypelaar

Lurid, bright colours and strong graphics? I feel a bit cornered.

Clean minimalism? My mind feels vulnerable, laid bare but curious.

Elegant script on a damask background? I’m intrigued.

We all have our biases when taking in cover art, because stylistically, we know what we do and don’t like. In fact, when I first received Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone at the age of six, I initially consigned it to the shelf because I wasn’t feeling particularly engaged by the cover. We all know how that ended: I was wrong. It turned out to be my favourite book in the world.

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Rereading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Photo: Serena Ypelaar

There’s another dimension to the idea of judging a book by its cover that goes beyond the self, though. Perhaps it’s because reading is such an intimate pastime, but combine it with our inherent fear of judgement and you have an interesting social phenomenon on your hands.

I’m talking, of course, about reading on public transit.

As a commuter who routinely takes the subway downtown, I cover a lot of ground in reading. I’ve always got a book on me, and I’ve stubbornly rebelled against the e-book ever since its introduction. The result is that other people always see what I’m reading.

As one of my two majors, English lit will always own my mind and heart, so I’m naturally obsessed with 1) what others on the subway are reading and 2) what I must look like reading my books.

Maybe it’s self-absorbed and no one else ever does this, but I often wonder what image I convey based on what I’m reading. Every time I reread Harry Potter, I wonder, “what if someone thinks I’m reading this for the first time ever?” When I read YA (young adult) romances, I don’t tend to flaunt them. And when I read Keats, Austen, Shakespeare, or any classic lit, I hold my book proudly, feeling learned but also slightly disgusted with my self-consciousness.

Reading on the subway is a performative art; whether we register it or not, we’re displaying our interests for bored strangers to observe in an almost Sherlockian fashion. If a grungy hipster were to enter the train reading Nicholas Sparks, for instance, I’d admittedly be taken aback. It makes us somewhat uncomfortable to face up to our inward assumptions about people, which are often based solely on how they look and dress; but their choices in literature are arguably more revealing. We can deduce what kind of stories move them, what fascinates them, or how they react to books in question.

Sure, I bet there are people who can’t be bothered with random people’s opinions of them – but there’s got to be a reason I’ve seen so many middle-aged women reading Fifty Shades of Grey on a Kindle, right? My point is, e-readers can sometimes be a strategic choice, providing anonymity in the case of a controversial read.

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“What are you going to read today, Napoleon?” “Whatever I feel like I wanna read. Gosh!”

As much as we can dwell in others’ scrutiny, though, I believe we can use reading on the subway as an act of empowerment: read whatever we feel like reading, spectators be damned. After all, just because someone’s reading a book, doesn’t mean they approve of it. Regardless of what we’re reading, why we’re reading it, and what we think of it, no one will ever know anything about our experience beyond the book cover and our outward expressions. Those are all superficial assessments – so we might as well just enjoy our commute.

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